May 4, 2022

April Reading Recap

My April was busy with various things, including celebrating my birthday and reading so many books:

SEA OF TRANQUILITY by Emily St. John Mandel opens in 1912, but the table of contents reveals that the story will range across centuries. That list of chapter titles offers several other intriguing hints, and I studied it with excitement. Other readers may prefer to set out as unprepared as the first protagonist, who travels by steamship from England to Canada in 1912 with no sense of what might happen when he arrives. In the course of the novel, characters undertake many journeys, some carefully planned and others subject to chance and whim. The story itself is whimsical at times, deeply thoughtful at others, and threaded through with a careful plan that guides the narrative.

I highly recommend this short novel to fans of Mandel's work. The story connects up in delightful ways with her previous novels and career, so while I expect anyone could appreciate the book, some previous familiarity will provide a deeper reading experience. Mandel wrote the novel during our real pandemic, while facing renewed interest in her already bestselling novel about a fictional pandemic, so it's no surprise that pandemics play a role in the plot. Other elements include mysterious phenomena and moon colonies and book tours and more that I won't spoil. I loved this strange and wonderful novel, and I hope you do, too.

A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan: This was my second time reading this book, a collection of chapters written in different styles and focusing on different characters with connections to a few central figures. On my first reading a decade ago, I resisted the label of "novel" because I didn't find any central arc that unified the separate stories. This time around, I approached the text knowing what to expect from the structure, and also as a different reader. This time, I loved what the novel was doing, and it felt to me like an unquestionable, if unconventional novel.

The story is about time and its effect on the self, on memory, on technology and the music industry. So it's a philosophical sort of novel, focused on character and emotion, but I found it propulsive because every chapter involves tense events and interactions. The chapters build on each other, peeling back layers to uncover the truth of what happened in the past, or revealing future consequences. It's a cool way to get to know the characters, who are portrayed with specificity and humor. I'm fond of the whole cast after seeing them at different times and from different perspectives.

I'm glad I returned to this in another time and with another perspective, and I was happy to have it fresh in my mind for reading Egan's followup, THE CANDY HOUSE.

THE CANDY HOUSE by Jennifer Egan: Like its predecessor, this novel is assembled out of chapters written in an array of styles, set in a range of times, and focused on a variety of people. The characters are all connected to each other, and they're connected to the cast of GOON SQUAD but mostly appeared only at the periphery of those stories. As the former background characters take center stage, events and details from the earlier novel are referenced and built upon, and while the reader doesn't need additional context, my recent revisit to the first book deepened my experience of the new one. What I came to appreciate most about both was unearthing all the links and echoes, and it was in part my familiarity with the web of characters that made me so fond of this novel.

Many sections of THE CANDY HOUSE revolve around a technology that allows people to externalize their memories and share them. As the invention and its offshoots grow in popularity, it becomes increasingly rare for anything to be forgotten, unknowable, or lost to time. Egan is less concerned with the scientific details of this tech and more with its possibilities as a literary device, which she uses to continue GOON SQUAD's explorations of time, memory, and self. But while this is a story more of ideas than plot, what it's most about is the characters who come alive as sympathetic, frustrating, singular people I was happy to get to know better.